Beyond Snowballs: Winter Games For You and Your Dog

The days may be shorter and colder, but winter blues shouldn't prevent you and your canine from enjoying the outdoors. There are many things you can do when the mercury drops and snow falls – here a few ideas from the dogs themselves.

Fetch, Catch and Beyond

For most of us, winter is all about snow. And the chief purpose of snow, as every retriever knows, is to make snowballs. If your dog loves to play with balls, he will love snowballs. "Catch and chomp" is a favorite among many retrievers, so count on making a lot of snowballs. If your walk takes you near a hill, all the better-Annabel and Jasper, two golden retrievers, love to chase snowballs down hills and come back to their owners with mouths full of melting snow.

Snowball fights are a ball for most dogs too – think of it as winter Frisbee. It works best if you don't pelt your dog with snowballs, but throw them at someone else, and let your dog play interception for one (or both) of sides.

Taylor, a German shepherd, came up with her own version of canine snowball fights. After a snowfall, when trees and boughs were covered with snow, she would stand by a small tree or bush, waiting for another dog or person to walk by. When they came close enough, Taylor would bump into the tree, releasing all the snow from its branches.

Theodore, a standard poodle, likes to help his family build snowmen. He learned to fetch sticks to use as hands and decorations. Fetching or finding sticks, incidentally, is much more fun when they are buried under snow. If your dog is not a natural retriever, you may need to help him out a bit at the beginning. Say, "Find a stick," and then go looking for the stick with your dog. It may involve digging, so wear mitts!

Hide and Seek

Snow is perfect for hiding and finding games. Hide and seek games run the gamut from simple to complex. Begin with "find a stick" – if your dog is having a hard time understanding find, go back a step, and start with "find a cookie." If your dog is not a natural finder, you may have to hide the cookie right under his nose for the first little while. But, with a tasty finish to the seeking he will learn quickly.

Hide and seek games are great for reinforcing some everyday comments. "Sit" your dog; then tell him to "wait" or "stay." Next, tell the dog what you're doing, "I'm hiding the cookie" (or stick, or toy). Initially, you may need two of you: one to help the dog with the staying, and the other to do the hiding. Then, tell your dog to go find whatever you hid. "Find" is a good command, but "Where is…", "Look for…" etc. will do as well. You will find this command very useful in the house too ("Find the leash, Fido." "Where's your bone?").

The best hide and seek involves hiding yourself, of course. If there are two of you, the person who stayed with the dog should give the commands, including the command to go find. If there is just you, you may need to shout "find" from your hiding place. It's not really giving away where you are, of course – the tracks you left in the snow will do that anyway!

Most dogs love to seek and a few love to hide. Be careful about playing any hide and seek games in which the dog is the hider in an unenclosed area, however – you don't want to create a situation in which you cannot find your dog.

Zig-Zags, Swimming and Slides

Snowstorms create a whole new slew of game opportunities. My parents' Great Dane Bohun invented a game I call Zig Zag during his first winter. After a fresh snowfall, people shoveled huge snowbanks on either sides of the sidewalk. Bohun leaped from snowbank to snowbank on his walks. Whenever he did it, we'd call out "Zig Zag." Soon, Zig Zag became a command and a game.

A similar game requires less leaping and more swimming. Almost every Labrador I've ever met loves "swimming" through loosely packed snow: throw a stick or snowball and watch them go. Teach them to Zig Zag for variety.

Dylan's owner takes advantage of snowfalls to build his dog a labyrinth in his backyard. He usually shovels a snail-shape all through the backyard, and Dylan, a boxer, loves to run through it, back and forth. You can turn the labyrinth into a proper maze by creating connections and blocks, or, you can plan a more elaborate maze of your own design.
Slippery snow opens a whole new vista of possibilities. Some dogs, like Tasha, a chocolate lab, love to slide down hills. Tasha takes a long run, rolls onto her back and slides down on her own.

Sparkles, a cockapoo, slides on his butt. To make sure your dog has the maximum amount of fun this winter, just watch her, and see what she likes to do. Most labs are perfectly happy just rolling in snow.

Sports and Such

You can't take your dog to most ski resorts, but there are quite a few people winter sports that your pooch will love. Cross-country skiing and snow shoeing are two such activities, provided you do them in an area where dogs are permitted off leash. It's very awkward for you, and unsafe for your dog, to ski while leashed to your dog. Snow shoeing on leash is a little bit easier, but much more fun for both of you if you're both unencumbered.

Keep in mind that if your dog's a novice to the sports, you'll need to spend some time familiarizing him with the equipment. A human being on cross country skis looks like a very strange creature to most dogs – and those two sticks he keeps on swinging about, they're just asking to be chewed.

Indoor Pursuits

There will be days when neither of you want to venture outside – especially if your pooch is shorthaired and short-legged. Before you curl up by the fireplace or in front of the television, consider playing an indoor game with your dog. While you can't throw snowballs or build snow forts or labyrinths in your living room, you can construct an obstacle course, you can play hide and seek (this time, it's safe for the dog to be the hider), and you can play many of your dog's other favorite games, including fetch, catch and tug of war. If you have hardwood floors, you can even slide.

Two things to keep in mind as you romp around the house. First, be considerate of your neighbors, especially if you live on top of someone. Second, remember that whatever behavior you permit as part of a game has now been allowed in the house. In other words, if you don't want Nellie to slide on the parquet or crawl under chairs whenever she feels like, you probably shouldn't teach her to do so during a game.

Safety First

Indoors or outdoors, when you play, remember to keep yourself and your canine companion safe. While you don't have to worry about heat stroke in the winter months, dehydration can be a problem even in the coldest conditions. If you're out for a long period of time, make sure you make time for a drink break (I prefer not to let my dog eat snow, and carry tepid water in a thermos). And remember that having fur doesn't mean you don't feel cold. Dress up your pooch in really cold weather, and don't be out too long when the weather is particularly harsh.

Take care of your dog's feet, too. During walks, check paws for icicles and balls or hard snow. They make walking very difficult. If you live in a city where roads and sidewalks are salted, you may want to consider getting some dog booties or rubbing your dog's paws with petroleum jelly before going out, and washing the salt off when you get home. Salt can dry and crack paw pads.

With a little imagination and effort on your part, winter can be as much fun as summer for your dog and you. Who knows – it might even become Fido's favorite season.